A Brief History of the Real Mary Queen of Scots

The Real Mary Queen of Scots

A Queen in the Cradle 

She was born Princess Mary, the only child of King James IV of Scotland and his French wife, Mary of Guise. Her place of birth was the palace of Linlithglow, in a part of Scotland called West Lothian on December 8, 1542, in a room in the north-west corner overlooking the loch. Her great-grandfather was King Henry VII of England, so she was also in line to the English throne after King Henry VIII’s own children, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward.

Mary Queen of Scots at about the age of 12 or 13

A Queen in the Cradle 

She was born Princess Mary, the only child of King James IV of Scotland and his French wife, Mary of Guise. Her place of birth was the palace of Linlithglow, in a part of Scotland called West Lothian on December 8, 1542, in a room in the north-west corner overlooking the loch. Her great-grandfather was King Henry VII of England, so she was also in line to the English throne after King Henry VIII’s own children, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward.

Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots

When the princess was six days old, her father the king died after losing a battle to the English, and she became queen of Scotland. Her coronation took place on September 9, when she was nine months old. Because she was a baby, others—including her mother—ruled Scotland for her.

In those days, when a girl married, her husband was expected to make all of her decisions and essentially rule her. Therefore, the important question from the time of the young queen's infancy was who she would marry one day because whoever she married would become king of Scotland.

England and France in those days were often enemies. They had long fought for control of Scotland, because Scotland was strategically positioned as a convenient back door to England. When the French controlled Scotland, they could easily attack from the north, and the English, not surprisngly, didn't like that. To gain control of Scotland, King Henry VIII of England wanted the infant Queen of Scotland to become betrothed to his young son, Edward. He couldn't convince the queen's mother and Scottish nobles to send the child queen to England to be raised in his court and marry his son when they grew up, so he sent armies north into Scotland to kidnap the child queen and bring her to England.

King Henry VIII of England

The queen’s mother, however, hid the little queen on the remote and secluded Isle of Inchamahone. The queen remained on that island until the danger passed. The king of England, though, did not give up. He sent more armies into Scotland, so the little queen was moved from one castle to another to keep her out of the way of the invading English armies.

Many of the Scottish nobles didn't want their queen to marry either the English prince or a French prince because they didn't want their kingdom swallowed up by a larger one. They wanted their independence, so they wanted her to marry the son of a Scottish nobleman. Of course, they couldn't agree on which nobleman's son she should marry. Each nobleman wanted the queen to marry his son.

As the English armies continued to trample Scotland hoping to capture the young queen, the Scots became desperate for help. They therefore approved a marriage treaty between the queen and the dauphin, the heir to the French throne, in exchange for French aid against the English. The marriage treaty required the French to defend Scotland while respecting Scottish independence.

Until the marriage could actually take place, though, there was always the chance that the English might capture her, so the queen's mother and Scottish nobles sent her to France for safety. On July 29, 1548, when Mary Queen of Scots was five years old, she bid a tearful farewell to her mother and stepped onto a French royal galley, accompanied by a full retinue including governesses, servants, attendants, and her maids of honor. Her four chief maids of honor, selected from the noble houses of Scotland, were Mary Seton, Mary Beaton, Mary Livingston, and Mary Fleming.

Childhood in France

After two weeks at sea, the Scottish queen and her retinue landed on the coast of France, in a little fishing village. The French people loved her immediately, hailing her as a brave little queen fleeing English armies. All who met her agreed that she was a charming, pretty, and energetic child. The king of France himself declared, "The little Queen of Scots is the most perfect child that I have ever seen."

Mary queen of Scots grew up in the royal nursery with the royal children, and was educated with them. She learned music, Latin, dancing, and poetry. She thus had a charmed childhood, growing up in splendid French Renaissance palaces, so much more luxurious than the castles she had known in Scotland. Troops of traveling actors stopped by the royal French nursery to entertain the royal children. They were shown wolves and boars, and wild animals from Africa. They were indulged with sweets and surrounded by pets including big dogs, lap dogs, falcons, and birds.

The Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a royal palaces where Mary Queen of Scots lived.

While the queen of Scots was robust and cheerful and likable, her future groom was sullen, stubborn, pale, and weak. Despite his poor health and small size, he loved hunting and riding, preferring sports to lessons. He was not a particularly good student.

By all accounts, however, he adored the Scottish queen, and she appeared happy in her role as his future wife. A warm and genuine friendship developed between them. One ambassador reported that the little queen and the dauphin moved off into a corner to exchange kisses and childish secrets at a court gathering.

When the queen of Scotland was fifteen years old and the dauphin fourteen, they were considered old enough to be married. Her uncle duke of Guise became a national military hero defeating the English at Calias. With his new power and influence, he was able to hurry the wedding.

The Daupin Francis (age 15) and Mary Queen of Scots (age 17)

Before the marriage ceremony, a secret treaty was drawn up, hidden from public view. Under the terms of this treaty, should the young queen die without heirs, her kingdom would pass freely to France. If implemented, this contract would have turned Scotland into a mere possession of France. The queen of Scots has, not surprisingly, been strongly criticized for signing this document.

She and Dauphin Francis were married in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, proceeded by a splendid parade through the streets of Paris. The procession was led by a Swiss guard in livery, marching to the music of fifes, violins, and trumpets. The Scottish queen was dressed in a sumptuous white dress, her train carried by two young girls. On her head she wore a golden crown garnished with pearls, rubies, and sapphires. She was, on this day, deliriously happy.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris

The Protestant Reformation 

While Queen Mary enjoyed a delightful childhood in the royal French nursery, doted on by her Guise relatives, adored by the Dauphin Francis and his brothers and sisters, trouble was brewing in Scotland, and in fact, all across Europe.

It is impossible to understand the life of Mary Queen of Scots without knowing something about the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation originally started as a movement to reform and improve the Catholic church. There were people who believed the church was too wealthy and powerful. Some believed the church abused its power. As the movement to reform the church gained momentum, new religions splintered off. These new religions, led by such men as Martin Luther and John Calvin for whom the Lutheran and Calvinist religious are named, rejected the authority of the pope.

Because crowns were passed down through families, and because religious laws determined which marriages were legal and which were not, having multiple religions in Europe created problems. For example, King Henry the VIII of England wanted to divorce his wife, a Spanish princess, so he could marry Anne Boleyn, the woman he was in love with. The Catholic church, however, would not allow him to divorce his wife. So he became Protestant, and divorced his wife under Protestant law, and married Anne Boleyn in a Protestant ceremony.

The Protestants therefore recognized his second marriage to Anne Boleyn as legitimate. The Catholics, however, did not. This means that the child of King Henry and Anne Boleyn, Princess Elizabeth, was considered a legitimate heir to the throne under Protestant law, but not under Catholic law.

Princess Elizabeth of England, later Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, Cousins and Rivals

When Princess Elizabeth's father, King Henry VIII died, the English crown went to his only son, Edward. Edward died three years later, and the crown went to his oldest daughter, the child of his first marriage to the Spanish Princess. She, too, died after a few years on the throne.

The question upon her death was who was next in line to the English throne. The Protestants believed Elizabeth was rightful queen. The Catholics, however, believed her parents had never properly been married, so they believed that Mary Queen of Scots, the next descendant of Henry VII, was the rightful queen of England.

Mary Queen of Scots was fifteen years old and newly married to the dauphin when Elizabeth's sister died. Immediately the king of France formally declared his daughter-in-law, Mary Queen of Scots, to be the rightful queen of England. One French poet declared that, in the person of Mary queen of Scots, "without murder and war, France and Scotland will be with England united."

England, however, was by that time predominantly Protestant. Moreover, the English had no wish to see their country swallowed up by France. The English people, therefore, declared Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII, queen of England. No doubt there were Catholics in England who would have preferred to see the Catholic queen of Scotland become queen of England as well, but on the day of her coronation, Elizabeth of England had the overwhelming support of her subjects.

Not surprisingly, Elizabeth of England did not take a kindly view toward her Scottish cousin claiming the English throne.

Queen of Scotland and France 

One year after the Mary queen of Scots married the dauphin, the king of France was killed when a lance splintered and pierced his eye in a jousting match. The Dauphin Francis and the Scottish queen became King and Queen of France. The new king of France, who had always been more interested in hunting than learning, was content to let the queen's powerful Guise uncles rule France for him.

The Duke of Guise, uncle to Mary Queen of Scots

There were two hitches in the queen's happiness. First was speculation that her husband the new king was too weak and feeble to father a child, and not likely to live long. Second was trouble brewing in Scotland.

More and more Scottish nobles were becoming Protestant, looking to England as their natural ally instead of France. The Guises had to send increasing numbers of French soldiers to the queen's mother to secure the Scottish crown against the rebels. It was rumored--and was probably true--that the Scottish rebels were secretly funded by Queen Elizabeth of England, who, to preserve her own life and crown, wanted to weaken Catholics in Scotland.

During the growing Protestant rebellions, the queen mother in Scotland fell sick with the dropsy, and died, leaving Scotland in chaos as the Scottish nobles vied for power. French troops sought to maintain order.

Not long after the death of the queen's mother, the king of France fell ill with an ear infection. He died at the age of seventeen. Immediately upon his death, the Guises lost control of the French government and were no longer able to send French soldiers to Scotland. The Reformation erupted in Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland was overthrown.

While the eighteen-year-old queen of Scots was still in mourning for her husband, there was already speculation about who would be her next bridegroom. Among the names mentioned were the kings of Denmark and Sweden; Don Carlos, heir to the Spanish empire; the young Lord Darnley with his English royal blood; the Archduke Charles of Austria; and the son of the earl of Arran, one of the most powerful Scottish nobles. Lord Darnley’s mother sent Darnley to France to offer condolences to the newly widowed queen, no doubt hoping he would catch her eye.

Her Guise uncles tried, without success, to bring about a marriage treaty between with Don Carlos, heir to the might Spanish dominions, but Queen Elizabeth succeeded in foiling the marriage. Queen Elizabeth had no desire to see the powerful Catholic Spaniards in the British Isles because she knew they would immediately claim the English throne for the Scottish queen.

The young widow, however, made clear she wished to return to her homeland to reclaim her Scottish crown. Many of her advisors and family advised her against returning without a major army to back her up. They didn't think a young unmarried girl could rule the rebellious and powerful Scottish clan chiefs. The situation was particularly dangerous because she was Catholic, and most of her subject had become Protestant.

Return to Scotland

In a mood that was both hopeful and melancholy, the Scottish queen set sail with her retinue and attendants for Scotland. Upon her arrival, she assured her subjects that she would not take away their new religion. She insisted, however, that she be allowed to practice her own religion in private. To modern readers, this may seem entirely reasonable. To those living in the sixteenth century, the very idea of a Catholic queen ruling a Protestant country seemed impossible and even preposterous.

On her first Sunday in Scotland, a group of rebels stormed her chapel and threatened to murder the priest. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of the unrest and rebellions. Later, two of her nobles conspired to kidnap her, murder their enemies, take control of the Scottish government, and marry the young queen to one of their sons. The most sinister rebellion against her was actually carried out in the name of Catholicism. The Catholic Lord Huntly of the Highlands assembled an army of almost 1,000 men and marched south with the intention of kidnapping the queen and taking control of the government. He was defeated when the queen’s subjects rallied to her defense.

She wanted to marry again, but discovered that almost any suitable husband would anger someone. A Catholic bridegroom would anger the Protestants. A Protestant would anger the Catholics. Raising up one of her own nobles would create jealousy among the others, and besides, each of the clan chiefs had their own enemies. A foreign bridegroom also posed a problem. Queen Elizabeth of England was terrified that the queen would marry a strong Catholic monarch, who would then claim the English throne in the name of Catholicism. Mary queen of Scots herself didn't seem interested in marrying a Protestant.

Marriage to Darnley

Three years after her return to Scotland, the young queen fell passionately in love with Lord Darnley. She insisted on marrying him against the advice of many of her advisors and friends, who believed Darnley was spoiled and weak. She married Darnley, a Catholic, in an traditional Catholic ceremony.

Lord Darnley, Queen Mary's second husband

Shortly after the marriage ceremony, a number of her Protestant subjects, including several high ranking nobles, rebelled in the name of Protestantism. But again, the majority of her subjects rallied to her side, and she was able to put down the rebellion.

It didn’t take long before the queen saw her error in marrying Darnley. He was indeed spoiled and weak. One year after their wedding, he joined a group of Protestants rebels and stormed the queen’s supper chamber while she was dining with some of her courtiers. The rebels brutally murdered one of the queen's advisors, David Riccio, claiming that the queen had raised him above her own nobles, including her husband. The rebels imprisoned the queen in her own palace.

She was able to escape by winning Darnley back to her side. Evidently she convinced Darnley she was still in love with him, and that his co-conspirators had driven them apart. With Darnley’s help, she slipped out of the palace in the dead of night, and fled to nearby Seton Castle, where she was able to raise an army and put down the rebellion.

As a result of the incident, Darnley had very few supporters left in Scotland. The Protestant rebels hated him for betraying them after Riccio's murder. The loyal Catholics hated him for conspiring against the queen.

The queen, by then, was expecting a child, the future Prince James.

She made clear that she no longer wanted to be married to Darnley. The pope, however, refused to grant a divorce. His reason was that Darnley was Catholic, and the queen had done too little to restore Catholicism to Scotland. Not long after her son Prince James was born, Darnley was killed in an explosion of gun powder. After his death, Scotland descended into chaos. The people demanded justice for the death of the king, but the queen did nothing.

The problem was that the murder had been carried out by the top nobles of the kingdom and her chief supporters. She had no standing royal army, instead relying on her nobles to provide soldiers when she needed them. With the king murdered by her most loyal and powerful, subjects, she had no way to take action against the murderers and bring them to justice. Queen Elizabeth of England wrote letters urging her Scottish cousin to at least make a show of bringing the murderers to justice. The Scottish queen, apparently sunk into melancholy, did nothing. Scotland descended further into chaos.

Lord Bothwell, one of the clan chiefs who had murdered Darnley, hatched a plot to kidnap the queen, marry her, become king, and restore order to the realm. He believed he was powerful enough to do it. He thus gathered an army and set out to kidnap her. At the moment the kidnapping occurred, the queen appeared to go with him willingly. To many who witnessed the "abduction," the whole thing appeared staged. Most likely she went with him and married him in a desperate attempt to bring order to the realm. She married Lord Bothwell quietly in one of his castles.

Lord Bothwell, Mary's third husband

The queen’s enemies rebelled again, now claiming that she and Bothwell had been lovers all along and had conspired together to murder Darnley. The is time the common people turned against her, shocked at the murder of their king followed quickly by her marriage to one of his murderers. A battle followed. Bothwell was defeated in battle, and fled Scotland. He was captured in Denmark. The Danish king imprisoned him, perhaps thinking he might bring ransom money. Bothwell died in a Danish dungeon.

The queen's enemies demanded that she surrender. When she did, they forced her to abdicate her throne in favor of her infant son, James. They then imprisoned her on the Island of Lochleven in a castle owned by Lord Douglas, one of her Protestant enemies.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to escape, she won the loyalty of a young boy, a page, in the castle named Willie, who managed to steal the keys to the front gates. To foil the jailers, Mary Seton--the only of the four Mary's to join the queen in prison-- dressed as the queen and pretended to be deep in prayer while the queen slipped out of the gates with Willie. She and Willie locked everyone else inside, and rowed across the lake to freedom.

Once she was free, she renounced her abdication and raised an army among her supporters. Her supporters, though, were outnumbered. She lost the battle and was forced to flee Scotland. Instead of going to France, as everyone expected, she went to England.

She asked Queen Elizabeth to help her put down the latest rebellion and regain control of her throne on the theory that queens must help each other: If rebels were permitted to overthrow monarchs, no queen was safe. It appears that Queen Elizabeth's first impulse was to do just that. But her Protestant advisors convinced her that the Scottish queen remained a threat to her own throne.

Imprisonment in England

The Scottish queen thus found herself imprisoned in England, although at first, the English would not admit they were holding her prisoner. They said they were “guarding her,” keeping her safe, while they considered how to restore her to her throne. Months passed, then years, while Mary Queen of Scots languished in English castles under English "guardianship." She grew frustrated and restless. When she tried to gain her freedom and leave England, she was confined more closely. She pointed out, rightly, that the English had no right to hold her in England. The last thing the English wanted, however, was for her to go to the Continent and return to the British Isles with a powerful Catholic army.

After it became known that Bothwell had died in a dungeon, a powerful Catholic English nobleman, the Duke of Norfolk, sought to marry the queen of Scots, rescue her from prison, and put her on both the Scottish and English thrones.

The rebellion failed and numerous English subjects, including the Duke of Norfolk, were executed for treason against Queen Elizabeth. The rebellion against Queen Elizabeth, carried out in the name of Mary Queen of Scots, gave the English what seemed like a legitimate excuse to keep the Scottish queen imprisoned. Mary Queen of Scots spent eighteen years imprisoned in England. Over the years, many men risked their lives--and died--trying to rescue her from English prisons. Anyone who rescued and married her could claim the thrones of both Scotland and England.

At last, the mighty Spanish emperor declared war on England and sent his mighty army and Navy to England with the goal of "ridding the world of that heretic Elizabeth," and putting Mary Queen of Scots on the combined thrones of England and Scotland.

With the Spanish on the attack, Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant advisors convinced Elizabeth that it was too dangerous to allow the Scottish queen to live. Her son, James, had now grown to manhood. He’d been raised Protestant and taught to hate his mother as the murderer of his father. they convinced Queen Elizabeth that long as the Scottish queen lived, there would be plots to put her on the English throne in place of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth gave the order that the Scottish queen was to be executed. Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle, in England, in 1587.

The English defeated the Spanish, and emerged for the first time as a major European power. Elizabeth ruled for many years. When she died, King James of Scotland, Queen Mary's son, was crowned king of England. All the kings and queens of England, down to this very day, are the descendants of Mary Queen of Scots.

Most of the information in this biography was taken from Antonia Fraser’s comprehensive biography of Mary Queen of Scots (Random House, 1969).